Skovoroda, philosopher, poet, theologian, musician and teacher

by Eugene Melnitchenko
and Helena Lysyj Melnitchenko

Although he had a profound effect on Ukrainian society and was one of the first existential philosophers, little is known in the West about Hryhorii Skovoroda, (1722-1794), the Ukrainian philosopher or the "Ukrainian Socrates" as he is sometimes called. In Ukraine, however, many schools bear his name and statues of this wandering scholar have been erected in several cities.

His works, compiled from various sources, were published after his death and have influenced almost every prominent Ukrainian poet and writer, including Ivan Kotliarevskyi, Hryhorii Kvitka, Taras Shevchenko, Lesia Ukrainka, Mykola Hohol (Nicholas Gogol), Vasyl Stus and recently Vasyl Barka. In his day, Skovoroda was one of the most original thinkers and one of the greatest minds in Eastern Europe. He truly reflects the Ukrainian psyche: love of nature, intense introspection, generous heart, keen aesthetic sense, love of freedom, profound humanism and a genuine religious spirit.

A man of contradictions, one of the most educated people in Eastern Europe at the time, he gave up formal teaching and became a peripatetic scholar and private teacher. While a strong believer in God, he refused to join an organized Church. He was also not a man of his time, a mystic when rationalism was the emerging philosophy.

He shed a revealing light on his own character when, sensing his approaching death, he dug his own grave the night before he died. He wrote his own epitaph, "The world wanted to capture me, but did not succeed."

Skovoroda was born on November 22, 1722, to a Kozak family in the village of Chornukhy, Poltava province, the heartland of Ukraine. For many reasons, some say including the beauty of its landscape, the Poltava province produced many other prominent Ukrainians, including the world famous writer Hohol, the 19th century philosopher Pamfil Yurkevych, the poet Vasyl Barka and the political and military leader Symon Petliura, to name just a few. Skovoroda enrolled at the Mohyla Academy in Kyiv at age 16. His exceptional musical talent was recognized early and he was sent to sing in Tsarina Catherine's court choir in St. Petersburg. He later returned to the Academy where he studied for almost 10 years.

With a natural sensitivity to languages, he mastered Latin, the language of instruction at the academy. He also knew Greek, German and some Hebrew, which allowed him to go to original sources in those languages. He traveled extensively and studied in Russia, Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary. In Ukraine, he lectured at several schools, including the seminary in Pereiaslav and the Kharkiv Collegium. However, in the late 1760s, he gave up formal teaching, renounced worldly pursuits and dedicated his life to reflection, moderation, purity, humility, patience, good nature and simple habits. He spent the rest of his life wandering in peasants' clothes, mostly travelling on foot, teaching and writing, finding lodging with his friends and in monasteries. His life was something of a mystery and captured the imagination of the people.

He began as a poet, experimenting with words, symbols, genre and rhymes to reveal aspects of his philosophy. In prose he was no less a poet, frequently rhyming his prose. Some of the poems from his "Garden of Divine Songs" became folk songs. They promote his view of the world and the correct moral conduct. Because he communicated his views as they evolved, some early scholars criticized him for offering a haphazard commentary on life without a philosophical system. One needs to read most of his works to comprehend the system.

Skovoroda's philosophy, briefly stated

Skovoroda viewed the world in terms of the pre-Socratic and Platonic opposites: good-evil, war-peace, life-death and night-day, water-fire, winter-summer. That is how God created the world, he believed. These opposites exist in a constant conflict, attacking each other in time, moving in a circle. "That which is down, draws that which is up, and up which is down." Thus, the world changes perpetually, converting something into something else. In night there is also the beginning of a day; in life, death; while weeping leads to laughter and laughter to weeping. In the mortal there is immortality and in the incomplete, perfection. In that sense, the opposites are related, stemming from each other. A noted Skovoroda scholar, Dmytro Cyzevsky, suggested that the philosopher had been influenced by German mysticism, particularly the writings of Jacob Bohme.

To Skovoroda the world consists of the visible and invisible. By its very nature, the visible shows that the invisible exists. "The invisible shines through visible surfaces." Man exists in the visible, while God in the invisible. Man is mortal, God is eternal; man is matter, while God is Form. Man lives in the world of appearances, is changing and perishable, while God is eternal and unchanging. Reality lies beyond the realm of appearances and the invisible or divine sustains appearances. Because eternity is invisible, it is nowhere and everywhere. Everything in the world points to the existence of God, and man can find God's divinity in himself through introspection. God reveals Himself to us through faith.

A contemporary of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Skovoroda is known as a philosopher of the heart. The heart colors our perception and understanding of the world. Like Rousseau, Skovoroda believed the role of education is to develop the whole man, including his mental, moral and spiritual capacities. Both philosophers had a profound effect on our progressive educational system.

Echoes of Skovoroda reverberate in the 20th century French writer Antoine de St. Exupery's famous line "The essential is invisible to the eye." Taras Shevchenko's poem "Perebendia," about the blind wandering musician, may have been inspired by Skovoroda.

To Skovoroda, God reveals Himself to men in three ways: the material world into which we are born; Man himself, or the microcosm which reflects the macrocosm; and the symbolic world of the Bible, which gives us the possibility to understand the eternal God. The material world is meaningless without one's intimate connection with the divine. Man has to use his cognitive powers to understand the macrocosm and its Creator.

The Bible leads us to the understanding of the eternal God. It is the main source of divine revelation, but it has to be interpreted personally. "It is mute to a fool and holy to a holy man." To understand its deeper message, the Bible has to be interpreted symbolically because its literal interpretation leads to contradictions, disputes and superstitions.

God gives every man the possibility to attain happiness and tranquillity in the world. He made everything that is necessary for happiness available and accessible to all. "He made easy that which is necessary and unnecessary that which is difficult." While He provides us with every opportunity to make us happy, facing disappointments and suffering, we are sometimes distracted from what is intended for us. Because of our ignorance, we pursue worldly things that are unnecessary for happiness. Instead, we should seek happiness in the invisible and the eternal being. We must rise above these obstacles to happiness, open our hearts and seek what was intended for us by God. We should seek tranquillity in discord, joy in sorrow.

Each human heart is imprinted with special talents by God. Through introspection we need to understand what our talents or potentialities are and pursue them to the best of our abilities. Like Plato and Aristotle before him, Skovoroda called on us to "Know thyself." As we understand and develop our potentialities, we achieve unison with God. The greater the agreement between our and God's will, the happier we become. Our true calling brings fulfillment. "The natural hunter enjoys the hunt and work more than the roasted rabbit on the table," and "a bee enjoys gathering honey more than consuming it."

Men are ordained to live in societies and their unequal distribution of talents requires division of labor. Societies function when their members perform their functions well. To attain happiness we must "live according to the Ten Commandments and innate virtues that God has inscribed on our soul, work in the vocation assigned to us by God and flee the vanity of the world, seeking the permanent and eternal."

The purpose of education is to help men reach tranquillity and peace of mind. It should encourage the proclivities of each student. "There is no need to teach apple trees to bear apples and a falcon to fly, but it would be a waste of time to teach a turtle to fly," Skovoroda wrote. The purpose of wisdom and philosophy is to explain what happiness is and how to attain it. Man should live a peaceful, cheerful and ethically sound life so as to embrace death without fear.


During his lifetime Skovoroda was controversial among the Church fathers and official society because of an unorthodox interpretation of the Bible, experimentation with poetry, his unorthodox approach to education and criticism of society's pursuit of material things.

However, he was well accepted by his friends and the common people, who viewed him as a wise and honest man teaching goodness and the fear of God. He lived what he preached and came to be known as "narodnyi filosof" or the people's philosopher. His followers were impressed by his academic learning, plain peasant's "svyta," wanderings on foot, enjoyment of solitude and the singing of his own songs. After his death, the legend of Skovoroda grew.

While not well-known in the West, Skovoroda was also one of the world's first existential philosophers. Some of his thoughts and writings precede Soren Kierkegaard's, generally considered to be the father of modern existentialism, by about a century and those of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre by two centuries. The latter two secular philosophers used the fear of death to stimulate men to search for their potentialities, while Skovoroda aligned men's potential talents with the gift and will of God.

As Ukraine searches for meaning in its new independent life, it would be well to re-examine Hryhorii Skovoroda's teachings. His philosophy remains pertinent in the 21st century.

Eugene Melnitchenko has a master's degree in philosophy from New York University and Helena Lysyj Melnitchenko, a master's degree in education from the University of Hawaii.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, July 25, 2004, No. 30, Vol. LXXII

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